Assumptions and Misinterpretations
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
When I was young and inexperienced at working, I had a job in a fairly small corporation, in a department that was rather informal and social. The employees joked with one another as they worked and there was a great deal of camaraderie regardless of the employees' relative positions. I had been there for about six months and had become accustomed to the playful give and take, when an employee who had been with our group for about a month became my immediate office mate.
I had been sharing the office with the guy who trained me for my job and with whom I had become friends. The new guy, Dave, had been nearby and had heard all our joking with one another. So he was familiar with how we worked together. I made the assumption -- very wrong assumption -- that since Dave had never seemed to mind the casual nonsense that went on throughout the department, he would want to be included in it.
I was flabbergasted, even horrified, when he had an absolute raging fit over a flippant remark I made to him. A remark that would have gotten an appreciative laugh from my prior office mate. He held forth (at high volume) for about 15 minutes (no, really!) about disrespect, ingratitude, lack of appreciation for authority, failure to take him and work seriously and other goodly items. He finished by suggesting that one or the other of us might find more suitable employment elsewhere. Everyone on the entire floor was privy to that red-faced harangue. It was very, very quiet.
Ball in my court. (Gulp.) I raised my jaw from the floor, put on my most sincerely contrite expression and said, "Dave, you're right. I'm very sorry to have offended you. I enjoy working with you and hope to continue. What I said was a joke, meant to be taken as meaning the opposite. I've made the same joke several times with Bill, and as my new office mate I was just trying to include you. It was not meant as an insult, but I can see how you took it that way. I didn't think it through and it's entirely my fault. I apologize and hope you'll forgive me. I'll be more careful about how I speak to you. I hope we can go back to being friends."
I could almost hear everyone start breathing again.
By this point, of course, Dave was rueful for having taken off that way. He realized the truth of what I said, thanked me for my mild reply, shook my hand and said he'd be glad to be my friend. For the rest of the years I worked there, we were friends.
Later, several of the other employees who overheard congratulated me on the way I handled the incident. They were actually amazed that a 20 year old knew what to do. To me, it was merely the outcome of how I had been trained by my parents. It hadn't occurred to me to do anything else. I had been taught that when others are losing control of themselves, the only way to deal with them is to keep calm and have strict control of yourself and your reactions. I found out with experience that many folks in my place would have responded with immediate anger and defense. With even more experience and passage of years, I learned that a number of people would probably respond with violence.
The most important immediate learnings I got from the incident were that:
1. My parents were right. When other are emotionally volatile in any way, but most especially when angry, do not respond in kind. Keep calm and attend to their needs. Be kind. Think in terms of defusing the situation, not of your ego.
2. Everyone has a different interpretation of what you mean. No matter what your intentions, the other person's interpretation rules their thinking, attitude and behavior toward you. It may not be fair when you are misinterpreted, but it is reality. You can't get along without making some assumptions, but be aware that you may be wrong and may be misinterpreted. Be very conscious that you are constantly making your own misinterpretations of others. So if you are getting angry, it's another time to check out your assumptions.
3. Humor is easy to get wrong. Tread carefully. In the workplace it can have many unexpected, harmful consequences.
C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. is a psychologist and performance coach who originated the Superperformance® concept in human performance improvement and publishes the sites Superformance.com® (Human Performance and Achievement Resources) and EverydayDelight.com.™ Superperformance is a trademark.